If you are a reader, do you read book reviews? Do you trust them when you do? Perhaps you shouldn't.
If you are a writer, do you seek them out? Do you cringe when you see one that you didn't solicit? How valuable are they, in today's marketplace? Do they help or hurt the sales of your books?
If you follow news in the publishing world, you already know that the business of marketing books is going through an enormous transformation. For the most part, those changes are needed and exciting. But as is the case when any entity goes through transformation, there are growing pains and hiccups: nowadays it is difficult to know where to go for a reliable, legitimate, well-done book review.
This is an issue that should concern readers and writers alike. As a writer and reviewer, I often notice glowing reviews of books that simply aren't that good in the technical sense: I have to wonder how a reader can possibly know what to spend money on without wasting it. I think that maybe the key is that a well-informed reader learns to consider and understand the source of the review. Writers need to do this as well.
For the writer, it's a confusing and fast-moving world once a book hits the marketplace. Reviews come from many places - some the writer asks for, many just pop up and are out of the writer's control. Reader reviews at sites like Amazon.com are valuable in that they can indicate how the book is being accepted by the public; after all, in the end if a badly-written book is making money, that may be all that matters to the writer. Conversely, a few good reviews of a quiet well-written book that is never going to be a runaway best-seller may be all the writer needs to feel the book was worth the blood and tears it took to get it written.
I see some signs that we are headed toward reviews being held to higher standards. At present, the problem I see is threefold: first, the marketplace is flooded with "reader reviews", from sites like Amazon and Goodreads, that may hurt a book even when they praise it. Secondly, the internet is full of self-proclaimed reviewers who are simply not qualified to be judging a book on technical merit - they are glorified readers. Thirdly, the practice of writers paying for a review is long-standing and common, and is coming under scrutiny only in recent years. Added to this, some writers review their own books under a different name, thereby promoting sales.
A reader review such as those at Amazon and Goodreads can hurt a book badly. Readers make two big mistakes when reviewing. First, they tend to give a summary of the entire plot (never necessary for a review!) and give away the story, thereby discouraging sales; if the potential buyer knows the plot, the enticement is gone. The other thing they do is give more a personal opinion than a review - and that is exactly what Amazon intends. But "I didn't like this book because I usually don't like it when there isn't a happy ending" is a sales-killer. The problem with a site like Goodreads is that its entire concept revolves around social networking; a clique of friends ends up passing a book around and if several of these like-minded individuals give a bad (based not on technical merit but emotional reaction and personal opinion) review, the sales of the book can be hurt, even if it is well-written and would have appealed to a more anonymous assortment of individuals.
Self-appointed review sites on the internet are also frequently unreliable. The vast majority of these "reviewers", I have found, are simply people who like to read, but have no real background in writing or publishing, and frequently no real understanding of structure of a novel, use of language, history of literature, genre - all of those components which allow a person to write a truly well-informed review of a book. I learned this the hard way when my first novel came out. I approached a reviewer I heard about from a friend, and in my naivete sent him a copy of the book (a common courtesy from a writer when seeking a review) and trusted in the merits of the writing itself. Big mistake. The man, while admitting in the review that the writing was great, ranted about the dark theme of the book and the lack of a sweet happy ending. He in fact stated outright in the review that he read to escape from problems in life and didn't want to read a book like that. I was astounded. So . . . the book was well-done, but deserved his public tongue-lashing, based on his own personal biases? I'm sorry I sent it to him. It was my first real big review, and I was devastated at the time. Over time, better - and fairer - reviews began to appear, and the wound healed. I am grateful to have learned the lesson. Now, when I stumble into the website of a reviewer, I check the site for the person's credentials. If I don't find them, I assume they don't have them.
What about the last category - writers reviewing writers? While considering what I was going to say here about this, I did some soul-searching. I do review other writers, and perhaps 4 out of 5 ask me for the review. I think I have established a good reputation as a person who does have the background to say something fair and informative, and they trust me. I do try to be as honest as possible, and write the review for the reader primarily, not the writer. (I may say something privately to the writer about technical issues.) I sincerely do not believe that I am lenient with writers because I share their profession.
As writers - and by extension readers - what can we expect from a legitimate book review? I would propose the following be held up as a standard.
1 The review should not contain much in the way of summary. It just isn't necessary, removes the joy of discovery for the potential reader, and is a mark of an amateurish review. A review should never, ever give anything away. It shouldn't scream "Spoiler ahead!" - another mark of an amateur!
2 The review should itself be well-written, devoid of spelling and grammatical errors. If the reviewer can't write, he/she should not be judging someone else's work.
3 The focus of a review should be on telling the reader what he/she is buying, in terms of a reading experience. Is the story one that moves along with suspense? Does it inspire with the music of its language? Does it paint an accurate picture of an historical period? Are there structural issues that make the story incoherent? These are the types of things a reader needs to know. The bottom line for the reader is Will I waste my money if I buy this book? Nothing else is more important in terms of the gist of the review.
4 A professionally-written, legitimate review should not feature the reviewer's personal opinions. In fact, I would personally go so far as to say that personal opinion - when it does not address the technical merits of the book that influence reader comprehension - should never enter into it at all. No reader gives a damn - nor should they - what the reviewer thinks about the theme. The reader just wants to know whether he himself would be wise to buy the book, given his own preferences. All of us being human and what we are, it is tempting as a reviewer to rant about something you didn't like in a book, but I think that as reviewers we have an ethical obligation to keep it professional out of respect for readers.
5 Technical skill of the writer should be discussed only so far as it informs the reader. For example, a book with logic problems (a character is 24 in the beginning, but three years later is said to be in their mid-thirties; or a character loses an object, only to present it three chapters later as part of a conversation), structural problems of the type that hamper reader experience/comprehension (illogical chronological twists, flashbacks that don't work), language problems (dialect written so heavily that the reader won't understand; foreign words added in such a way that the writer is showing off and the reader has no idea what is being talked about). If it does not have to do with reader experience, it doesn't belong in a book review, but in private correspondence between reviewer and writer: to do otherwise serves only to humiliate the writer, and bore the reader to tears.
6 A good review doesn't make blanket statements without support. When a big point is made about the book, it should be illustrated by a quoted passage and brief discussion.
Am I being too anal about all of this? I don't think so. As readers we need to be able to trust book reviews, and unfortunately the state of the business at present is that few decent reviews are being written. A book review is a valuable tool for the reader to weed out books - even good books - that would be a waste of that particular reader's time and money. Writing a good book review is an art in itself - a good book review serves the reader - not the writer or the reviewer. If the book merits it, the review also sells the book.